The following article was originally published in Socialist Voice No. 20 (Winter 1984).
The leaflet below was distributed by the League for the Revolutionary Party in May at a “Conference and Debate” held in New York under the title, “The Soviet Union: Socialist or Social Imperialist?” The conference was initiated by the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), one of the few Maoist organizations that survived the ideological turmoil in the Chinese Communist Party after Mao Tse-tung’s death in 1976.
The “debate” at the conference was narrowly proscribed. Political presentations were invited representing two points of view only: the Maoist doctrine that the Soviet Union turned sour only after Stalin’s death in 1953, and the pro-Moscow view that it remains “socialist.” Trotskyist presentations were specifically rejected, although the LRP and other tendencies were able to intervene from the floor. The RCP’s goal was to demonstrate to the Maoist and ex-Maoist milieu that it alone could uphold the Great Helmsman’s teachings. Unfortunately for the RCP, few pro-Soviet people attended (aside from the handful of invited academic speakers and the neo-Stalinist Spartacist League) and fewer participated in the discussion. The Maoists were by and large preaching to the already converted.
For its proclaimed purpose of debate and clarification, the conference proved to be a farce. Most presentations, especially those by the RCP and its Maoist allies, were empirical and theoretically slovenly. When challenged on points of fact or theory, they hid behind the loyalty of the bulk of the audience to avoid serious replies.
Two particular attitudes of the RCP merit specific condemnation. One was the constantly repeated criticism of the “Soviet invasions of Afghanistan and Angola.” This is a severe distortion. The USSR did indeed invade Afghanistan in 1979 in order to defend the shaky bourgeois-nationalist revolution under attack from reactionary landlords and tribal leaders – but especially to destroy the revolutionary leadership and force the revolution to retreat from its few gains in the hope of maintaining Soviet dominance, pacifying the border, and even effecting a compromise with the Western-aided rebels. Both the Soviet imperialists and the reactionary Afghan “freedom fighters” must be condemned.
But in Angola, Soviet arms and Cuban troops played a two-sided role; they stepped into the civil war in 1975 after the country had been invaded by forces of apartheid South Africa. This defensive role called for military support, along with political opposition to their propping up of the bourgeois MPLA government against the masses’ aspirations. The Soviet-Cuban intervention maintained Angola’s nominal independence while keeping it safely within the sphere of world – chiefly U.S. and Western European – imperialism. Today, the RCP’s one-sided call for Cuban withdrawal could only mean support for more direct Western and South African domination of Southern Africa.
Secondly, our leaflet attacked the RCP’s disdain for workers’ material gains. This attitude was grossly evident. When one pro-Moscow panelist noted that the vast majority of Soviet workers now have refrigerators, the RCPers present burst into laughter. One retorted that “refrigerators freeze not only food but also bourgeois relations” – the workers are better off without. This contempt for the well-being of the workers that these pseudo-communists claim to support succinctly demonstrated the petty-bourgeois composition and ideology Of the Maoists.
The question of the class nature of the Soviet Union has been fought out many times throughout its stormy history of revolution and counterrevolution. Understandably so, for the “Russian question” dominates the most basic questions of Marxist theory and international politics. But none of the past debates were as fruitless as this one that the RCP has cooked up within the Stalinist family (or as much of it as is willing to play along).
On one side, we will hear the old-line Stalinist claim that the USSR is “socialist,” now justified by the methods of bourgeois sociology that can prove there is no ruling class (no great feat, since the same techniques “prove” that there is no ruling class in the U.S. either). On the other side is the RCP itself, with its dewy-eyed discoveries that Stalin had “weaknesses” and made “errors” and got a “muddled” position – but not an ounce of Marxist analysis that could come to grips with the counterrevolutionary Stalinism that destroyed the Soviet workers’ state.
The RCP is terribly proud of knowing that the USSR is capitalist and that its world position is that of an imperialist power. Such pride is entirely undeserved. The RCP came to this position rather late in the day, when the decline in the USSR’s vaunted “socialist” expansion of the productive forces was becoming painfully obvious; and for highly selfserving reasons, since the RCP Maoists followed the Chinese CP in labeling Moscow capitalist only when this served China’s nationalist purpose of preparing a de facto alliance with U.S. imperialism. But as for the days when Russian imperialism was at its most expansionist after World War II, when the Soviet Army was dividing up Europe and Asia with the West on the basis of the inter-imperialist Yalta Pact, when Soviet tanks were crushing workers’ revolutions in East Germany and Hungary – when it comes to those days the RCP doesn’t scream “social imperialist” but instead calls the USSR “socialist” and presumably supports its imperialist conquests. That is a record to be ashamed, not proud, of.
On the question of Eastern Europe, by the way, the RCP has a lot of nerve calling Stalin muddled; its own scripture is about as muddled as mud can be. On the one hand, there is the offhand comment by Chairman Avakian last year that “it has to be said bluntly that socialism never existed in these Eastern European countries” (Revolution No. 50, page 28). On the other hand, the old faith that Stalin spread socialism wherever he trod is repeated in the RCP’s new book The Soviet Union: Socialist or Social-Imperialist (page 142); here the RCP refers to post-war Russia and Eastern Europe as part of the “socialist camp” – and this comes not in a reprint of an old article written before Chairman Bob’s revelation but in the March 1983 introduction.
Even debater Al Szymanski, who thinks that the workers really rule Russia, admits that the USSR had “exploitative relations” and “dictated” unequal terms of trade with Eastern Europe before the mid-1950’s. He at least doesn’t have the problem of explaining how Russia was “socialist” when it was greedily looting East Europe but then became imperialist later on when it had to struggle, to squeeze a kopeck out of its satellites. But that’s what you get when you try to analyze Stalinism with Stalinist methods.
Perhaps the RCP believes that its muddle should be forgiven; after all, Avakian’s comments were in a talk that he himself said shouldn’t be taken too seriously. “The attempt is not going to be made to present worked out ideas”; many of these theses are only “tentative”; “This is likely to be... somewhat scattered and ... a little bit trippy.” And so it was. But then the RCP went and devoted 50 pages of a 50-page magazine to these scattered, tentative and unworked-out ideas.
False modesty has always been one of the RCP’s least endearing characteristics. Take their continual disclaimers on post-war Eastern Europe. Nine years ago in Red Papers 7, the RCP (then the RU) admitted that “We in the RU have not yet completed our research on the question of East Europe and we do not as yet fully understand the particularities of capitalist restoration in these countries.” In the new book on the Soviet Union they repeat, “Marxist-Leninists must still develop a more thorough understanding of the capitalist workings of the, Eastern European economies and their relationship with the Soviet Union ...” (page 204). And Avakian chimes in on the same subject, “I don’t claim at this point to have unraveled this muddle...”. People who haven’t figured out which class ruled, whether the proletariat was master or slave, which side to support when conquering armies rolled through – should keep their mouths shut and stop pretending to be Marxists and communists. They are playing children’s games with life and death questions.
Those who admit that they can’t decide whether a country has a brutal, miserable, dictatorial reactionary chauvinist capitalist state or one embarked upon the road to progress and plenty for human salvation (a socialist society) are by that fact alone shouting from the rooftops that they don’t know which end is up, that something is bizarrely wrong with the way they look at the world. And when you couple this studied ignorance with the insistence by the same people that they are the bearers of the revealed line – then you have Avakian’s RCP.
The RCP’s arrogant confusionism doesn’t apply only to this kind of backhanded defense of Russian imperialism. They give a helping hand to the West as well. Who is it that gets up at meetings on El Salvador and Nicaragua and opines that although U.S. imperialism.. is bad, we shouldn’t forget Soviet social imperialism in Central America too? Wake up, muddle-heads! When it comes to the U.S.’s “backyard,” the Soviets are a third-rate piddling imperialism that can’t even finance its own clients. Russian imperialism is vicious enough in its own sphere without having to be mechanically inflated beyond belief.
Such distortions arise from slavishly following the Chinese party line under the “immortal” Mao. It wasn’t just the post-Mao “revisionists,” remember, who backed racist South Africa’s agents in Angola, supported the crushing of radical youth rebels in Sri Lanka, admired the bloody Shah in Iran and Mobutu in Zaire, and aided the Pakistani militarists in trying to smash the independence of Bangladesh – all moves in harmonious resonance with U.S. foreign policy. Mao was a master at using radical rhetoric to cover counterrevolutionary acts. When Deng Xiaoping cemented his alliance with Washington, he was only following the course charted under the Great Helmsman. And Maoists like the RCP played their despicable role too, cheer leading or apologizing for every swivel.
Even the Maoist term for the USSR, “social imperialism,” is slimy. Words like “social imperialist,” “social pacifist,” etc. have been traditionally used by Leninists to refer to rotten politics held by tendencies in the workers’ movement. The USSR’s rulers have not been part of the working class for decades; there is nothing “social” about their imperialism. The Chinese CP may well have chosen the term with this in mind, keeping open the option of reversing its verdict at some point and labeling Russia “socialist” again (as it has already done with Yugoslavia). Or else the term may have been intended to place Russia in a different category from the U.S. – a worse one – in order to justify backing the U.S. Either way the term is unscientific and un-Marxist. And using it to give tacit support to imperialism, as do tendencies in the working class such as the RCP, is itself precisely social imperialist.
Why is it that an organization that wants desperately to look revolutionary can’t straighten out the perennial pro-imperialist twists in its line? Fundamentally, it’s because the RCP is saddled with an ideological burden, a twisted heritage, that the most indomitable will in the world can’t overcome. Stalinism and Maoism are pro-bourgeois, nationalist, counterrevolutionary ideologies: the antithesis, not the continuation, of Marxism and Leninism.
Take the RCP’s conception of socialism, the decisive question in this whole debate. “What makes ... a society socialist is the fact that a proletarian line is overall in command ...” – a thoroughly idealist, non-dialectical definition. The RCP gets this idea from Mao: “The rise to power of revisionism means the rise to power of the bourgeoisie,” as if bad ideas alone define a ruling class. This enables the RCP to see “socialism” disappear in Russia and China simply when a Great Leader dies, despite the absence at the time of counterrevolutionary struggles or any significant shift in the masses’ material conditions. Seeing imperialism as a matter of the rulers’ policy and not as a material question is the essence of what Lenin called Kautskyism. It applies equally to the RCP’s version of “capitalism.”
Trying to give its idealism a Marxist cover, the RCP theorists repeatedly insist that Khrushchev’s rise to power after Stalin’s death was “a real class struggle.” But in Red Papers 7, the only attempt to substantiate this claim, they admit that the anti-Khrushchevites “failed to bring the struggle out of the Politbureau and to the masses.” Then they resort to their typical pseudo-modesty for evading tough questions: “We do not know all the circumstances which prevented the proletarian forces from bringing the struggle into the open, developing mass action. Nor are we clear on exactly who did represent the proletarian line.” Some class! Some struggle! Some Marxism.
Most importantly, the Maoist theory enables the RCP to overlook Stalin’s vicious slashing of the workers’ and farmers’ living standards in the USSR throughout the 1930’s, the blow after blow directed at proletarian rights and achievements won during the revolution – in a word, the counterrevolutionary dynamic that culminated in the restoration of capitalism on the eve of World War II – all because, in Avakian’s “tentative” language, “basically and in the main, Stalin represented the most correct and principally the correct position at that time.”
And if Khrushchev could restore capitalism by fiat, what was to stop him from making it superpowerful? The RCP has no conception that Soviet imperialism is far weaker than the U.S. on a world scale. because the Soviet workers’ revolutionary gains area mixed blessing for the rulers who usurped them; no conception that Russian capitalism is distorted not only by the imperialist epoch in general but by its own counterrevolutionary heritage as well. That is, the proletarian revolution was a material force that has been negated but not annihilated – not just a terrific idea in some bureaucrats’ heads.
The RCP’s definition of socialism is neither Marx’s nor Lenin’s – and not even Stalin’s. For Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat meant the society transitional to communism, the most advanced mode of production possible; Marx did not name it socialism. Lenin and the Bolsheviks used “socialism” to refer to what Marx had called the lower stage of communism, a stage in which bourgeois remnants would still exist but separate social classes would not. Lenin had good reason not to call the USSR socialist: even the genuine workers’ USSR had not come near surpassing the productivity of capitalism. Calling it a higher mode of production would have been a joke. The term is an even grimmer joke applied to the “socialist” countries today, whose productivity compared to old-style capitalism is not only behind but is losing ground.
Stalin declared the USSR “socialist” in the mid-1930’s with the adoption of the new Constitution, after the completion of the first Five Year Plan and his bloody agricultural collectivization. The reason was that individual private property had been abolished.
Stalin did not claim that the USSR had been socialist since 1917; only that he had made it so. And at the same time he decreed that the USSR was no longer a dictatorship of the proletariat but a “state of the whole people” – as if a state would be needed once “the whole people” was in power! (No, RCP, it wasn’t your revisionist Khrushchev who invented this lying, internally contradictory term.)
Maoists today tend to define socialism as equivalent to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Why? For one thing, they are now compelled to argue that nationalized property does not define socialism, so Stalin’s usage won’t do. For another, they have to make their theory jibe with declarations of rulers like Mao who refused for years to call China, Eastern Europe, etc. proletarian because they were conciliating the local bourgeoisies. That’s when the weasel words “new democracy” and “people’s democracy” came into vogue. Muddying everything under the heading “socialism” avoids the basic question of which class was in power.
Finally, they have to somehow take into account Lenin’s oft-repeated view that socialism was impossible without the international expansion of the worker’s revolution; i.e., that Stalin’s invention after Lenin’s death of “socialism in one country” was hogwash. Blurring the terminology so that a vague “socialism” is indistinguishable from the dictatorship of the proletariat accomplishes this deed, since no Marxist denies that the proletarian dictatorship could and did occur in one country.
The whole Stalinist-Maoist enterprise of toying with fundamental definitions serves only the shifting purposes of rulers trying to deceive the working class in order to subject it. It lays bare the fraudulent and blatantly revisionist character of the whole anti-proletarian tradition.
The RCP scorns the idea that workers’ material conditions have anything to do with socialism. Yet, lo and behold, the very same idea crops up regularly in the writings and speeches of Lenin – so Lenin too gets dumped on by Avakian for “a certain bourgeois logic.” In fact, Avakian has to admit that “it wasn’t only the Trotskyites” who believed that Russia’s isolation and backwardness ruled out the idealist (and in practice counterrevolutionary) dream of socialism in one country – “this was Lenin’s idea” too. Mao forbid, Avakian murmurs, Lenin also had the “theory of the productive forces.”
Yes indeed, Lenin was a “Trotskyist” – that is, he was an internationalist, a fighter dedicated to the victory and well-being of the working class – not like Stalin, Mao, Avakian and other maneuverers and traitors to the working class who don’t know or care whether the workers rule or slave, live or die, eat or starve.
The RCP’s version of “socialism” is no more dialectical than its apparent opposite, the theory held by Moscow’s defenders that the USSR is socialist because property is nationalized and no discernible ruling class with private ownership of the means of production exists. This ahistorical, static theory ignores the social relations of production – the very real power relations of wages, surplus-value and armed force that dominate the “Soviet” system and make use of the state property. It forgets that the Soviet workers once did rule and were later ousted from power. It swallows whole the tales told in Pravda and the official Constitutions of Brezhnev and Stalin about contented masses who still have unions and democratic rights. And “Marxists” like Szymanski are capable of noticing Stalin’s exploitation of East Europe without realizing this means imperialism.
The RCP uses the very same method when it looks at Stalin’s rule in the 1930’s – and so can’t tell the difference between a genuine workers’ state and the corruptions engineered by Stalin and Mao. Then it manufactures a magical overnight change, mindlessly violating the dialectical principle that class power changes only through struggle. The RCP’s claptrap has the same purpose as that of the pro-Moscow revisionists: to label as socialism the enslavement of the working class. “Revisionism” is the mildest of terms for this brand of charlatanry. Marx liked a better, more concise and more scientific term: crap.
The RCP has one little problem to deal with in its soul-searching efforts to uncover “mistakes” in the crimes of Stalin (and in the contributions of Lenin): the real job of finding the Marxist truth about the cataclysmic events of the 1930’s has already been accomplished. It was done at the time, not fifty years too late, by Trotsky and the Trotskyists, who painstakingly unmasked every Stalinist lie, every crime against the workers committed in the name of Bolshevism. To the extent that there is any value in Avakian’s “ground-breaking” efforts, he stole it from Trotskyism. It was Trotskyism that exposed the Stalinists’ counterrevolutionary work in the Spanish Civil War; it was Trotskyism that fought the Soviet Union’s “bourgeois-democratic” conduct of World War II, it was the Trotskyists who campaigned for revolution among the workers after the war, in contrast to Stalin (who, according to even Avakian, “did what he could do ... to kill the revolutionary struggle of the masses in order not to bring down the wrath of U.S. imperialism”). For once Avakian is right about what Stalinism stood for killing the masses’ struggle and propping up the dominant imperialists, as well as grabbing its own share of the spoils.
Some revolutionary-minded young people have been attracted to the RCP by its seeming radicalism at a time when most of the left is moving rapidly rightward. But they are being cruelly deceived. Not one concession to U.S. imperialism is permissible for American radicals living in the heart of reaction, not one concession to anti-proletarian Stalinism. To those RCPers and others who are searching for the truth about the history of the USSR and Stalinism, we say: Get away from the apologetics of the Avakians and Szymanskis, the Stalinist brothers-under-the-skin whose pseudo-erudition and not-even-pseudo-dialectical maunderings only serve to bury the truth under mounds of mud. Read Trotsky! If you want to see what real Marxist prose and analysis looks like, what it really means to stand up for the interests of the proletariat and the oppressed – take a look At Trotsky’s writings of the 1930’s. If your stomach can handle it, compare them with Stalin’s crap. Read Stalin’s speeches on the Great Patriotic War – and see if you can refrain from ripping that vile, racist, chauvinist, pro-imperialist garbage into shreds, page by page. And it’s no “muddle,” either – it’s conscious, self-serving lies. Open your eyes, comrades, open your eyes.
It is another endearing Stalinist characteristic to consciously ignore the true history of Trotskyism, regurgitating the whole panoply of Stalin’s lies in order to shove aside the one Marxist current that fought and survived the corruptions of Stalinism and Social Democracy. Decades of debate on the nature of the USSR are part of this history, debates far better grounded, in Marxism than anything the Maoists and ex-Maoists are producing. The Trotskyist current made its share of errors over Russia – errors that the Maoists are now repeating in gross forms, and with hone of the Trotskyists’ contributions. Marx was right again when he observed that history repeats itself as farce!
To learn the truth about what happened since World War II, you have no choice except to read the articles in Socialist Voice, the magazine of the League for the Revolutionary Party. We are Trotskyists, we have been writing extensively about the restoration of capitalism in the USSR and its role as an imperialist power and prop since the war (among other questions). We believe that our work is the only basis for understanding the great events of recent decades, the massive uprisings of workers in dozens of countries – and the slimy betrayals that have kept them from socialist victories time and again, by the Social Democrats, Communist Parties, Maoists and other centrists.
There is only one road forward for the proletariat today: the rediscovery of Marxism, the revival of the proletarian internationalism that won so resounding a victory in Russia in 1917 – a victory that still shapes the course of history. Even though it was defeated, it wasn’t annihilated. This means the re-creation of the World Party of Socialist Revolution – the Fourth International that Trotskyism laid the basis for in the 1930’s. If you want to learn the truth, if you want to fight the only battle worth fighting, for the socialist revolution – join us.